FLOSS Manuals sprint starts at Google Summer of Code summit

Five days of intense book production kicked off today at the FLOSS Manuals sprint, hosted by Google. Four free software projects have each sent three to five volunteers to write books about the projects this week. Along the way we’ll all learn about the group writing process and the particular use of book sprints to make documentation for free software.

I came here to provide whatever editorial help I can and to see the similarities and differences between conventional publishing and the intense community effort represented by book sprints. I plan to spend time with each of the four projects, participating in their discussions and trying to learn what works best by comparing what they bring in the way of expertise and ideas to their projects. All the work will be done out in the open on the FLOSS Manuals site for the summit, so you are welcome also to log in and watch the progress of the books or even contribute.

A book in a week sounds like a pretty cool achievement, whether for a free software projects or a publisher. In fact, the first day (today) and last day of the sprint are unconferences, so there are only three days for actual writing. The first hour tomorrow will be devoted to choosing a high-level outline for each project, and then they will be off and running.

And there are many cautions about trying to apply this model to conventional publishing. First, the books are never really finished at the end of the sprint, even though they go up for viewing and for sale immediately. I’ve seen that they have many rough spots, such as redundant sections written by different people on the same topic, and mistakes in cross-references or references to non-existent material. Naturally, they also need a copy-edit. This doesn’t detract from the value of the material produced. It just means they need some straightening out to be considered professional quality.

Books that come from sprints are also quite short. I think a typical length is 125 pages, growing over time as follow-up sprints are held. The length also depends of course on the number of people working on the sprint. We have the minimum for a good sprint here at Google, because the three to five team members will be joined by one or two people like me who are unaffiliated.

Finally, the content of a sprint book is decided on an ad hoc basis. FLOSS Manuals founder Adam Hyde explained today that his view of outlining and planning has evolved considerably. He quite rationally assumed at first that very book should have a detailed outline before the sprint started. Then he found that one could not impose an outline on sprinters, but had to let them choose subjects they wanted to cover. Each sprinter brings certain passions, and in such an intense environment one can only go with the flow and let each person write what interests him or her. Somehow, the books pull together into a coherent product, but one cannot guarantee they’ll have exactly what the market is asking for. I, in fact, was involved in the planning of a FLOSS Manuals sprint for the CiviCRM manual (the first edition of a book that is now in its third) and witnessed the sprinters toss out an outline that I had spent weeks producing with community leaders.

So a sprint is different in every way from a traditional published manual, and I imagine this will be true for community documentation in general.

The discussions today uncovered the desires and concerns of the sprinters, and offered some formal presentations to prepare us, we hope, for the unique experience of doing a book sprint. The concerns expressed by sprinters were pretty easy to anticipate. How does one motivate community members to write? How can a project maintain a book in a timely manner after it is produced? What is the role of graphics and multimedia? How does one produce multiple translations?

Janet Swisher, a documentation expert from Austin who is on the board of FLOSS Manuals, gave a presentation asking project leaders to think about basic questions such as why a user would use their software and what typical uses are. Her goal was to bring home the traditional lessons of good writing: empathy for a well-defined audience. “If I had a nickel for every web site I’ve visited put up by an open source project that doesn’t state what the software is for…” she said. That’s just a single egregious instance of the general lack of understanding of the audience that free software authors suffer from.

Later, Michael McAndrew of the CiviCRM project took us several steps further along the path, asking what the project leaders would enjoy documenting and “what would be insane to leave out.” I sat with the group from Sahana to watch as they grappled with the pressures these questions created. This is sure one passionate group of volunteers, caring deeply about what they do. Splits appeared concerning how much time to devote to high-level concepts versus practical details, which audiences to serve, and what to emphasize in the outline. I have no doubt, however, listening to them listen to each other, that they’ll have their plan after the first hour tomorrow and will be off and running.

(All my postings from this sprint are listed in a bit.ly bundle.)

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